191110 anupam akshay
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To me these images are deeply problematic; hunger is the worst thing in the world and some tone deaf “stars” seem to be making a circus out of it.

Does a camera follow them everywhere? 

Repeat after me poor people are not promotional props.

There is a reason I write this. We have recently been inundated with a barrage of photo opportunities where actors and cricketers, perhaps the most privileged and richest class in deeply unequal India, have found a new public relations shtick. They play lord and lady bountiful as they share pictures of themselves having tea with the poor.

An actor tweeted pictures of himself with a bunch of poor slum kids post a meal in a five star hotel.

To me these images are deeply problematic; hunger is the worst thing in the world and some tone deaf “stars” seem to be making a circus out of it.

Does a camera follow them everywhere? And does that sound familiar? Most of these “celebrities” are self-declared fans of a self-declared “fakir”, the second term Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi who himself loves a giant pudding of publicity.

Are these cricketers and actors gargantuan brands in themselves following in their master’s footsteps?

Modi with Bollywood actors
This selfie of Modi with the creme-de-la-creme of Bollywood went viral earlier this year. Image Credit: Social media/Karan Johar

Consider this: A bunch of women athletes, including Olympian and Member of Parliament Mary Kom sent out identical cut copy paste tweets hailing a Modi government initiative.

The same tweets  by athletes on Modi
The same tweets by athletes on Modi Image Credit: Twitter

Modi is a master of public relations deploying über influencers to add the necessary stardust to his all-important image.

Mango interview

Remember that “how do you eat Aam (mango) interview with Akshay Kumar? Kumar has made both Modi and mammon happy by making a series of films on the Modi government’s flagship schemes such as Swach Bharat which was turned into a movie Toilet ek Prem katha. Twinkle Khanna, woke writer and Kumar’s wife, tweeted a picture of a man defecating in the open on Juhu beach.

Besides the eye watering invasion of privacy, what struck me most was the blindness of privilege that Khanna displayed. It is never ok to use a human being as a prop or a promotional tool for your movie.

Yet, this does not seem to strike these celebrities in their rarefied bubbles of privilege. In the West, you have a septuagenarian actor and activist Jane Fonda spending the night in jail, while here actors line up in 7 Lok Kalyan Marg – the Prime Minister’s official residence to listen to a Modi lecture on Mahatma Gandhi and take selfies with him.

Bollywood biggies and cricketers jostle with each other to endorse government schemes and provide a face to them. The absolute servility is astonishing in a democracy.

It is also a departure from the past. Many actors including Dev Anand and singers like Kishore Kumar differed with the then government. During the Emergency, the Indira Gandhi government banned Kumar’s songs from All India radio. Kumar did not given in.

Compare this to the superstar Khans - Aamir Khan and Shahrukh Khan, who faced attacks from the government and the BJP’s infamous IT fell on their films and now seem to have tamely caved in.

When cricketers and superstars who earn billions in deeply poor India cave in to the government, the message that is being sent is that dissent and disagreement are absolutely forbidden.

So you may be an ultra-aggressive in your face cricketer like the captain of the Indian cricket team Virat Kohli, but you and your actor wife Anushka Sharma will still genuflect at the altar of Modi. Kohli displayed his economic wisdom or rather the lack of it by endorsing the looney measure, which torpedoed the Indian economy - demonetisation.

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Demonetisation was also endorsed by Aishwarya Rai, whose name figures in the list of the Panama papers.

I don’t think that brilliant actors or genius athletes need to be forced to be role models for society. It is an unfair expectation, but then when they try to use the most vulnerable Indians to burnish their sheen, it galls.

These carefully choreographed displays make a mockery of poverty. And it is made worse when they never speak against lynchings and hate crime.

Should your powerful voice only be an endorsement of power and government? Sorry does not speak to my soul.

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